The infinite ante (Derrida again)
A comment on Derrida by Timothy Burke hits on one point that has long bothered me in Derrida’s methods of argument. Of the two components of “the interior absolutism of Derrida’’s critical method”, one is
the cry of all or nothing at all, that if communication could not be perfected, then there was no communication, if texts could not have a correct meaning, they meant everything, anything, nothing in particular. This is the rear-guard modernism of Derrida […] If meaning cannot be guaranteed with finality, then there is no use to talking about it at all. If interpretation cannot be absolute, it cannot be done save as a negation of all positive acts of interpretation.
I had the anticipation of a similar thought when I heard Derrida speak on “the gift” (material now included in Donner le temps). After a lengthy treatment of Mauss, Derrida concluded that “the gift is impossible” because the circuit of exchange can never quite be broken in actual instances of giving; yet the pure concept of “gift” (or the concept of a “pure gift”) imposes upon the act of putting something in the possession of another the requirement that there should be no possibility of exchange, of a gift in return. One might take that to be a kind of reductio of the concept of a pure gift. Derrida did not.
Other philosophers delight in showing that commonsense notions have paradoxical implications, usually with skeptical intentions. Derrida sounds like a skeptic at times—of that annoying sort who insists that you mean what you say, and won’t let you off the hook for any of the supposed consequences of what you say. Peter Unger’s variations on the Sorites argument come to mind. A skeptic of this sort is not so much interested in denying your claims to knowledge as in denying the presupposition that there is something to which your terms refer. Thus Unger concludes that there are no people: the term ‘person’ (or ‘human being’), because it is vague, is subject to the Sorites and leads inevitably to paradox. If there are no people, then of course there is nothing to know about them, but that is incidental. So Derrida, when he says that the gift is impossible, may begin by noting that we can never be sure that this act of giving is not part of a circuit of exchange (just as in Kant’s moral theory we can never be sure that we are acting solely out of duty). But he then goes on to ask whether that uncertainty, rather than being a merely contingent matter of our limitations, is not built into the concept.
If it is, the concept is nevertheless not abandoned or reinterpreted so as to make gift-fiving feasible. Derrida uniformly refuses either to abandon terms like “thing”, “event”, “gift” or to pragmatize them. He will not conclude that if the pure gift is impossible then we ought, after extracting from it whatever can be expresssed inoffensively, to “regiment” our language and eliminate the offending term. Nor will he recommend that we content ourselves with the vaguer notion of a relatively or probably disinterested gift.
That is the absolutism Burke notices. The practical effect of it is to raise the ante so high that the Derridean never gets into the game. Action is postponed indefinitely in favor of reflection. (I’m not sure why Derrida’s position, so put, should be regarded as a “rear-guard modernism”. For one thing, it’s much older than that, unless Burke takes a long view of modernism. I’ve already mentioned Kant on the good will.) Derrida was more concerned with practice than Burke takes him to be. But he would have taken the recommendation that we should move on to, or return to, “a mode of critical praxis in which it was possible, once again, to make affirmative statements about what is more and less likely to be true”, and content ourselves with the meanings we “are familiar with, trust in, assume”, to amount to an abandonment of philosophy.
Added 23 Oct 2004. — You can’t always pick your friends (source: the Leiter Reports). Many of Derrida’s friends find it necessary to imitate the master’s style. A bad idea generally, and rhetorically inept if you’re defending Derrida against people who find his style repugnant. Though it would be naïve to think that style is a mere container or habit for thought, even the thought of a philosopher as self-conscious about writing as Derrida has some degree of “portability”. None of us really thinks that in philosophy style and content are indissociable—we paraphrase and even “reconstruct” with abandon, Derrida too. In any case, if style & thought really are entirely indissociable, then unless your thought and Derrida’s are identical (in which case why are you writing?) your style and his cannot be identical.